Christmas and our mental health

A pine tree in the foreground with blurry twinkling white lights in the background

by Rob Hill

When did you first see Christmas products in the shops this year? Before Halloween? Or maybe earlier. Maybe in September, with the autumn leaves not yet fallen and the kids only just back at school.

And how did it make you feel?

Chocolate in almost infinite forms (with those great big sharing tins especially prominent). Rolls of wrapping paper by all of the tills. Multi-packs of cards placed with seeming baffling casualness at the end of the cleaning products aisle.

Christmas and our mental health are entwined in a way that only seems to be reinforced by elements that have combined like some festive Faustian pact to construct what is deemed to be the ‘perfect’ Christmas. The concept of what a modern Christmas looks like is supposed to have been invented by Dickens and then accelerated by eager Victorians.

This vision has barrelled forward for 150 years. Now the bombardment of adverts starts in the autumn and never seems to end. Accusations that this time of year is an orgy of consumerism are cliched, but that doesn’t mean they’re not authentic. And as for the social side……making plans to accommodate or live up to all the seemingly immovable social traditions can be overwhelming.

Christmas can be a time of joy, revelry, and spending time with friends and family. But it can also be a lonely and stressful period for many. And thankfully this has been increasingly recognised over the last few years. Charities and organisations such as Age Concern and the Samaritans advertise with as much frequency as major retailers in the run up to Christmas.

How might Christmas affect our mental health?

The simple answer to this is – in countless different ways, both good and bad. The potential stress involved in planning and cooking the Christmas dinner for your expectant guests is a classic, cliched example. And how about the baffling social niceties involved in writing Christmas cards?

Alternatively, a good friend of mine loves Christmas because they love giving presents to people. The joy of giving and seeing people you love happy at being given a present – joy squared.

Two contrasting sides of the festive coin there.

So how might Christmas affect our mental health?

  • You may feel alone or excluded because everyone else seems happy when you’re not.
  • Maybe you wish you didn’t have to deal with Christmas or find it stressful because of other events going on in your life.
  • You might feel frustrated or discouraged by the artificial construct of the ‘perfect’ Christmas that’s thrown at us by adverts, especially if it feels different from your own experiences.
  • Perhaps you feel like Christmas gives you something to look forward to and find it difficult when it’s over.
  • Finally, you may want to spend time with someone who themselves are struggling. You’re being selfless and supportive. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need support yourself.

Unsurprisingly, Christmas can also have a more direct effect on existing mental health issues.

  • Difficult and stressful experiences that happen or have happened to you at Christmas could make your mental health worse.
  • It can be harder to access essential services that normally help you. Some of these services may be closed or operate on reduced hours during the Christmas period.
  • Your usual routines may be changed, disrupted, or even abandoned altogether, which makes it harder to manage your mental health.
  • If you celebrate other religious festivals or holidays, you may feel overlooked. It might feel like Christmas is given special attention.
  • The whole Christmas to New Year period can also be a hard time. It can cause us to reflect on difficult memories, regrets, or worry about the coming year.
Our local village brook looking all wintery

So how can you look after your mental health at Christmas?

There are a few tips that can help you preserve your mental health in this season which is supposed to be about joy and unalloyed celebrations, but often proves otherwise.

  • Talk about your feelings and what you’re going through. It’s a cliché, but simply talking to someone can improve your mood.
  • Do something you’re good at. Immerse yourself in something you really enjoy. Doesn’t have to be Christmas related, at all. It will reduce your stress.
  • Ask for help. We always say this here at Thrive. If you need support – ask for it. A charity, a friend, or a trained professional – there’s always someone there for you.
  • Accept who you are. You experience Christmas differently to others – that’s perfectly fine. Don’t feel under pressure to live the festive season outside your comfort zone.

If you want to know more about coping at Christmas, then this guide from Mind is a good place to start.

What about Christmas if you’re neurodivergent?

We’ve already discovered that there are many reasons why you or someone in your life might find Christmas difficult. There’s already enough on your plate if you’re neurotypical. But if you’re neurodivergent, these existing issues can be magnified. Or perhaps there’s a new raft of problems to contend with.

We humans are still, at some deep social evolutionary level, driven by the need to abide by routine. We take comfort from it. Routines are an important part of our lives, and we can all feel rather unsettled when they change.

This is particularly true of neurodivergent individuals. Someone with autism for example benefits from the safety and comfort of settled and unchanging routines, which provide an essential anchor in their world.

But Christmas is a time of year when routines can get blown apart. The scramble to plan visits to and from friends and family. The disruption caused by shops and services operating changed opening hours. The transformation of what was previously a quiet and organised office into an explosion of ever-blinking lights, tinsel, and Christmas songs blaring from a someone’s radio.

If you’re neurodivergent it’s all too easy to become over-stimulated and overwhelmed.

Our social interactions change too, and there is often an expectation to be festive and to socialise with people, especially at work. These expectations can be suffocating and the cause of considerable anxiety.

And throw in the usual work pressures too, which are often ramped up as the end of the year bears down upon us. All those projects and assignments that, seemingly out of nowhere, acquire an urgency simply because the calendar is about to flip to January.

How can you support a neurodivergent person at Christmas?

Everyone has the right to have a fun Christmas. So here are a few tips to help you support someone who may be struggling, particularly if they’re neurodivergent.

  • Don’t put pressure on a person to be sociable if they feel uncomfortable doing so. You could offer the chance to spend time together one-to-one, or to do an activity that has a more fixed schedule (like going to see a movie).
  • Changes to personal plans seem unavoidable at this time of year. But try to minimise them if you can and give as much advance warning as possible if plans do change.
  • Be mindful of flashing Christmas lights – even having too many lights in one place may be over-stimulating.
  • Have a conversation before turning the office into Santa’s grotto. Don’t assume that someone who doesn’t like the decorations, or won’t help put them up, is a Scrooge. They may well be feeling uncomfortable from overstimulation.
  • Some people find the giving and receiving of presents very difficult. Gift-giving is a huge social skill. There are so many processes that go into gift buying and for some individuals, it can cause stress and anxiety. “Secret Santas” are a classic example of this. The kindest thing to do is to allow an opt-out without judgement. The option to opt out may also be welcome in a time of seemingly never-ending financial pressures.

This post certainly isn’t intended to restrict anyone’s enjoyment of Christmas. It’s intended to flag the fact that we all experience Christmas differently., and not everyone wants the parties, the gut-busting food, and Mariah Carey on the radio (sorry Mariah).

And with that in mind, here at Thrive we wish you all a safe, happy, and mentally healthy Christmas and New Year.

Image by Freestocks on Unsplash